Fri | Mar 24, 2023

Improved surveillance caught Chinese balloon – White House

Published:Tuesday | February 7, 2023 | 1:12 AM
A map shows the path of the suspected spy balloon.
A map shows the path of the suspected spy balloon.


US officials said on Monday that improvements ordered by President Joe Biden to strengthen defences against Chinese espionage helped to identify last week’s spy balloon – and determine that similar flights were conducted at multiple points during the Trump administration.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Monday that after Biden took office, the US “enhanced our surveillance of our territorial airspace, we enhanced our capacity to be able to detect things that the Trump administration was unable to detect”.

Speaking at the event hosted by the US Global Leadership Coalition, Sullivan added that as part of those efforts, “we were able to go back and look at the historical patterns” and uncover “multiple instances” during the Trump administration in which Chinese surveillance balloons traversed American airspace and territory.

Several Trump administration officials have said they didn’t learn of Chinese surveillance balloons during their tenures.

Before Monday, US officials had said that at least three times during the Trump administration, and at least one other time during Biden’s time as president, balloons have crossed American airspace, but not for this long.

Sullivan did not explain what specifically allowed the US to detect and track the latest balloon where the previous administration might not have. Officials have said, without elaborating, that China has flown similar balloons over parts of five continents in recent years.

Sullivan defended Biden’s decision to wait until the balloon was off the Carolina coastline before shooting it down, saying military advisers assessed that downing it over water “created a greater possibility that we could effectively exploit the wreckage than if it were shot down over land.” Some GOP lawmakers have criticised the president for not shooting it down sooner, though Pentagon officials also warned of a potential risk to Americans on the ground.

Sullivan said the US was “still piecing through” which Chinese officials knew what about the balloon when in Beijing, and would not speak publicly yet about US assessments about China’s intentions flying it over the US.

Separately, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday that the US Military has begun collecting debris from the balloon.

He also confirmed that the White House has offered to brief key officials from the Trump administration, but said briefings have yet to take place.

Kirby firmly rejected Beijing’s claim that the US violated international law by shooting down the balloon.

“The United States, under President Biden’s authority and orders, acted in accordance with international law and in defence of our homeland and our sovereign airspace,” Kirby said. “We were absolutely within our rights to bring down that balloon.”

Kirby also dismissed China’s contention that the balloon was for meteorological purposes, saying “it strains credulity ... that this was some kind of weather balloon that was floating on the winds”.